Bait and Switch in Howard?

November 21, 1994

No one in Howard County should feel cheated by the news that there will likely be no county property tax cut this year.

Neither should the announcement to that effect by County Executive Charles I. Ecker a week after he won re-election be construed as a belated admission that the county's fiscal picture is less rosy than he suggested prior to Election Day.

Although the Republican executive ran on his record as a fiscal conservative who had taken the county from deficit to surplus, he never held out the promise of a tax cut during the campaign. To the contrary, Mr. Ecker warned of tough times ahead even as he fought to deflect criticism from his opponent, Democrat Susan B. Gray.

The fact is the entire state is in dire straits and Howard County -- with all that it has going for it -- is hurting as well.

It is too early to make firm projections, but Howard County tax revenues have grown at an unusually sluggish rate compared with past years. Although officials had promised a 1 percent cost-of-living increase to county workers if revenues grew 10 percent by Jan. 1, 1995, the actual rate has been about 5.5 percent.

Even more alarming are the conditions causing the drop in revenue projections, including the overall decline in the rate of growth for residential and commercial property values.

Officials chose as an illustration the situation in the Columbia village of Wilde Lake, where values have been stagnant, and in some cases have declined. This pattern has also followed suit in other neighborhoods. With the go-go '80s long gone, growth in housing values has declined. For young couples eagerly trying to break into the housing market, that's not a bad trend, but it does choke the flow of revenue for government.

The bigger question is whether these early revenue projections portend a tax increase next year. Mr. Ecker is right to wait before making any predictions about that hot potato.

If this seems to some people like the political equivalent of bait-and-switch advertising, we would strongly disagree. One would also have to ask whether the alternative offered by Ms. Gray during the campaign -- with scant focus on economic development -- would have made a beneficial difference. Would it have been wise to elect someone who was promising to further close the spigot on revenue sources that were already slowing to a drip? Not likely.

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